Thursday, October 21

The right foot post-Covid

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THE most memorable football match I ever attended was on Nov 7, 2009. It was the Final of the 83rd edition of the Malaysia Cup, with 100,000 people packing the Bukit Jalil National Stadium to see Negeri Sembilan beat Kelantan 3-1. This took place a week after the installation of the 11th Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negeri Sembilan – the first such event since 1968 – but the team last won the cup in 1948, the same year the eighth Yamtuan Tuanku Abdul Rahman signed his agreement to form the Federation of Malaya (of which he would later be Yang di-Pertuan Agong).

Though it is not my favourite sport, football obviously has many inherent qualities, requiring individual skill and cooperative strategies. But on that night, I truly appreciated the passion that Malaysians have for the game, and its role in celebrating state affinities. Negeri Sembilan’s colours shone from every supporter, chants in our dialect continually reverberated, while the words of the rousing Hobin Jang Hobin, in desiring a crushing victory, also celebrate the Yang di-Pertuan Besar (who is always the association’s Royal Patron), Undangs, and Menteri Besar.

As the night drew to a close, there was spontaneous singing of the state anthem, with the line “Musuhnya habis binasa” (“Annihilated are the enemies”) having particular relevance. Incidentally, the very first president of the Football Association of Malaya (FAM) was Andrew Caldecott, who composed the melody of the Negeri Sembilan State Anthem in 1911 when he was District Officer of Jelebu during the reign of the seventh Ruler Tuanku Muhammad.

Last Tuesday, with the present Undang of Jelebu and Menteri Besar, hosted by the Tunku Besar Tampin who is president of the Negeri Sembilan Football Club, I again watched the Negeri Sembilan football team, this time beating the PDRM team to become Champions of the Premier League. For context, competitive Malaysian football revolves around three cups: the FA Cup (won by Negeri Sembilan in 2003 and 2010), the Charity Cup (won in 2012), and the Malaysia Cup (won in 1948, 2009 and 2011) and the league system, which comprises the Super League, Premier League, M3 League and M4 League, with top and bottom teams being promoted or relegated every season. Negeri Sembilan won the Super League in 2006, and the Premier League in 1991.

Thus, while Negeri Sembilan had seen success in the past, victory here is a massive boost along with promotion back up to the Super League.

There are those who criticise what they see as “state parochialism” through football interfering with loyalty to Malaysia, but they are wrong. All Malaysians have multiple identities, aspects of which become more relevant depending on context. That is why perennial arguments over identifying as “Malaysian first”, while well-intended, can be distracting. Our patriotism and duties as a citizen can perfectly co-exist with different identities – whether that is defined by ethnicity, state, profession or even musical tastes. Ultimately, these mosaics of identities intangibly provide the underlying raison d’être to all our institutions – from the government, parliament and the judiciary – which are supposed to serve all citizens.

On a related note, the Negeri Sembilan football team is truly multiracial, captained by Mohamad Zaquan Abdul Radzak but comprising of Damien Lim (of the famous footballing family) and the Ramaloo brothers alongside Beomgeun Bae from South Korea, Alain Thierry Akono Akono from Cameroon, and Arthur Cunha da Rocha from Brazil. All of them can shout “Hobin Jang Hobin” with the correct accent.

After the 4-2 victory, the victorious Jangs did a short tour outside the stadium to meet fans. A triumphant roar erupted, and a fan-made gigantic replica of the Premier League trophy was paraded for all to admire, accompanied by the spirited drumming of musicians who had earlier led the cheering throughout the match. With Negeri Sembilan entering Phase 3 of the National Recovery Plan earlier this month, and 94 per cent of the adult population being fully vaccinated, the ability to celebrate communally provided a palpable catharsis not felt since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sixty years ago in 1961, my grandmother the Tunku Ampuan of Negeri Sembilan, Tuanku Durah officiated the first big match of the Negeri Sembilan Women’s Football Association (NSWFA) team against the equivalent Selangor team at the Seremban station padang, attracting 8,000 spectators.

I would be happy for such a number watching our squash players annihilate the competition not only from other states, but around the world too. As the state’s main squash courts begin a major renovation to enable world-class events to be held in Seremban, perhaps we can adopt some sage advice, “Kito jangan monggolabah / Sumo Pialo kita punggah.”

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is president of the Negeri Sembilan Squash Association.